Sunday, August 26, 2007


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       Do black cats have anything to do with the Bible? Perhaps. Faith and superstition, popularly regarded as completely opposite attitudes, are actually more closely related than most people imagine. The dictionary defines faith as “belief not based on proof,” and superstition as “any blindly accepted belief or notion”; so people who “believe” the Bible have faith and people who avoid black cats crossing their path are superstitious. But if you examine the definitions closely, they are only distinguished by the negative word “blindly” characterizing superstition. Without it, superstition’s definition works also for faith. Thus, superstition is belief lacking a reasonable basis and faith is belief enjoying a general respectability.

       Can respectable “faith” be easily distinguished from disreputable “superstition”? Put differently: is there a point when faith slips into superstition? For example, Paul describes the presence of angels in early Christian worship (1 Cor 11:10). For church folk, Paul is believable, but they dismiss as crass superstition the ancient Greek and Roman belief that nymphs and spirits inhabit certain sacred groves and springs. Why is belief in angels “faith” but belief in nymphs superstition?

       Television evangelist, Robert Tilton, frequently urges his audience to embrace their t. v. sets while he prays for their healing. Is that really different from the sick being healed and demons exorcized through objects taken from Paul’s body and applied to persons so afflicted (Acts 19:11-12)? In Graeco-Roman Antiquity people generally believed that Zeus had children by mating with human females. Modern church folk dismiss that as crass superstition, but accept the divine birth of Jesus through Mary as historical fact. The author of James (5:14-15) believed the sick could be healed by anointing them with oil, and praying. How is that a legitimate item of faith, but the ancient belief that Asclepius healed people who slept in his temples an ancient superstition? Oddly, in the middle first century the Romans described Christianity as a “pernicious superstition” (Tacitus), but accepted as a formal item of faith that augurs could determine the will of the Gods by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals.

       Does superstition exist in modern religion? It depends on whom you ask. Baptists regard as “superstition” the Catholic belief that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ in the Mass. On the other hand, many Baptists believe that the words of the Bible are literally God’s very own words—a view many Catholics regard, at best, as naïve and, at worst, irrational. Yet each group holds its own belief as a legitimate mystery of faith.

       Aside from arrogance, or hubris (something all Gods deplore), no consensus exists for distinguishing “responsible belief” from “irresponsible superstition.” It appears to be a matter of personal perspective,” i.e., “my belief is faith and yours, superstition.” Distinguishing them generally hinges on who first uses the negative words most effectively and convincingly. But, of course, a true believer won’t need to rub a rabbit’s foot to know the difference.

First published in the Springfield News-Leader, Springfield, Missouri.

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 1:36pm